New YorkPace Gallery
April 26 – June 22, 2013
Maya Lin has long been known both for her protean practice, which spans the fields of architecture, memorial design, environmental earthworks, and studio art, and for the eloquence of her understated aesthetic. Inspired by Hurricane Sandy and her commitment to environmentalism, the two-part exhibition (presented simultaneously at Pace’s New York and London galleries) includes a range of stand-alone sculptural work and introduces a new aspect of her What is Missing project, the latter of which takes a risky step in the direction of didacticism. As the artist’s first thematic show conceived specifically for a commercial gallery setting, thenew approach reminds us that art is often more effective in shifting attitudes and perspectives when it is less explicitly intent on doing so.
Although the works vary in material, the unifying theme of our natural environment announces itself in the meandering contours and rough, irregular shapes of the pieces. The works range from sculptures constructed from hundreds of steel pins protruding directly from the wall, to low relief wall sculptures made from recycled silver to marble floor sculptures and one work on paper. On one level cartographic representations of the earth’s surface, the works’ considered embodiment endows them with meaning that transcends scientific description. In three “Pin Rivers” (all 2013), for example, the fractal-like shapes formed by the aggregations of pins both represent waterways and, with the pins’ allusion to the means by which points of interest are marked on a map, evoke the human impulse to explore, know, and master. Holding these two ideas together—that of a natural force independent of human agency and the drive to control it—gives rise to questions about our relationship to the natural world. In our pursuit of nature, is our attitude one of stewardship or subjugation? Do we see ourselves as part of nature or separate from it? In two “Silver Rivers” (2011 and 2012-13) two New York waterways are rendered hauntingly still; here, a muted silver gives the pieces a sense of history and loss, perhaps evoking the keepsakes one has inherited from generations past. Reading the supplemental text, we are informed that one of the “Pin Rivers” represents the area flooded by Hurricane Sandy, but this merely confirms what we’ve already intuited: there is a deep sense of mourning and urgency at work here. The weight of the impact raises the question: Are we mere bystanders to the devastating changes we’re witnessing in the natural environment, or are we implicated in their cause?
In the marble works “Longitude NYC” and “Latitude NYC,”(both 2013) forms resembling cross sections of topographical maps evoke the earth’s mountainous terrain. Carved from a subtly striated white marble and rising to just under knee height from the gallery’s floor, these works invite circumambulation. Moving around them, a sense of hovering far above the earth’s surface is interfused with its opposite, as the sensuality of the marble and its placement at our feet elicit a feeling of intimate connection. This vital link between seeing and empathy is at the core of all of Lin’s best work, and its effect is profound.
Unfortunately, the work takes a turn away from poetic suggestion toward more overt and literal pedagogical persuasion in the show’s back room. A part of her ongoing multi-media project titled What is Missing, the artist’s self-proclaimed final memorial whose mission is to raise awareness about the environmental crisis, this piece consists of a single line of projected text moving across three contiguous walls of the otherwise empty room and is set to a subtle, ambient soundscape reminiscent of blood pulsing through one’s body. Initially, the amniotic soundscape and hushed atmosphere deepen the contemplative mood induced by the other works, but as our attention shifts toward reading the text, a dissonance arises. Appearing in brief, linear increments, the text is a series of statements documenting historical changes in the geographical landscape of the New York City area. Though the mood remains solemn and mournful, the relationship between the work’s content (the loss of species, habitats, and geographical features) and its means of delivery (a string of facts issued from a digital feed) is too univalent and literal to sustain deeper engagement. In contrast to the other works’ evocative character, the discursive nature of this piece—its insistence on telling rather than showing—denudes the work of associative power. We are left passive recipients of a message, rather than active, empathic participants in the work’s meaning.
Viewer participation per se is not absent from Lin’s What is Missing project. In this piece, as on the project’s elegant website which serves as its base, viewers are encouraged to contribute their own observations. The work’s failure lies in its departure from aesthetic participation, which, in its address to levels of consciousness deeper than reason, is the greatest source of art’s transformative power. If Lin’s didactic project is less effective than her other work, it also underscores what makes the latter so potent. With its poetry, the best of Lin’s work speaks volumes, and we are listening.
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